The summer before I left for the Peace Corps, in an attempt to learn how to be alone, I took myself on a date for the first time. I had just broken up with my boyfriend of two months and I was irrationally upset in the way that a person who did the breaking up has no right to be. Like every other break up, I regretted it almost instantaneously – a common theme in my love life. I’ve either stayed in relationships long after they were over, driven by the need to be wanted, or ended relationships abruptly, at the first hint of rejection. A therapist once told me that I have a “fear of abandonment,” brought on by a sexually abusive Imam at the mosque I attended, physically abusive parents and an angry father whose look of contempt holds a special place in my memory. As a child, I found love in the way my mother’s hands, before they became rough and calloused, massaged my back with Vicks after one of her abusive rampages. I still remember the way her hands felt, gently gliding over every cut and bruise, leaving behind a deliciously dull ache. My parents would tell me that all I needed to do was be a good girl and they wouldn’t have to “discipline” me anymore. Ironically, every time the Imam was done touching me in places that a 6 year old should not be touched, he would say indignantly “you’re a bad girl.” Now, I’ve become familiar with the lingering impressions of abuse that inevitably pervaded every romantic relationship that I’ve had; the elephant in the various rooms of my sexual encounters, mocking my attempts at feeling something real. But I digress. This blog post isn’t about the variety platter of abuse that characterized my childhood and shaped my love life. It’s about my attempt at working through those things and searching for that elusive sense of inner peace. It’s about being alone.
After I broke up with the aforementioned guy, I immersed myself in Peace Corps preparations. I obsessively scoured the blogs of current volunteers and made a list of all the things I needed to do to make my time in the Peace Corps less challenging. Among items like “Build muscle in arms so you can fetch water” and “Learn to swim!” (things I failed miserably at) I listed “Learn how to be alone.” I knew that in addition to giving back to the world, Peace Corps was a time of self-reflection and solitude – two things I dreaded. I was never a serial dater but I crammed my work/school/social calendar so that I was rarely ever alone. In fact, my perception of self was largely influenced by how other people saw me. Because of this, oftentimes, I felt like I was two different people: the one I presented to the world – confident, smart, and beautiful – and the one I kept hidden – ashamed, insecure and lonely. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my Peace Corps service adequately if I didn’t learn how to be alone. And so, I decided to date myself.
I got ready for my first date just as I would have if I were going out with another person. I wore my “first date outfit”- a tight black mini dress with a cardigan over it – and I had the prerequisite first date jitters, worsened by the fact that I wasn’t sure how to act without someone mirroring back to me, without a guy telling me how beautiful/smart/interesting I was. I almost canceled on myself that night, but I didn’t. Two profound things happened that summer: 1. for the first time ever, I arrived early for dates. 2. I stopped looking for distractions and I slowly started enjoying the time I spent alone.
Fast forward to the present. I recently caught myself thinking I could be alone for the rest of my life and that would be fine. This thought popped into my head casually, like it was an item on a grocery list. Never mind that a year and a half ago, I almost canceled on a date with myself. In two weeks, I will be traveling around Thailand and Bangladesh by myself navigating a completely different corner of the world. Somewhere in the last year, between the solo candle-lit dinners and bucket baths, I became the sort of person who goes on trips by herself. Sometime during the countless hours I spent in my house alone, talking to myself (no shame), watching movies, cooking and reading, I became kinder and more forgiving. I realize now that I am made up of many incredibly attributes and many, many flaws; that the very thing I was denying was a pivotal part of what made me whole. I am not my past but my past has shaped me in ways that I am proud of. I know what it’s like to be neglected and it has only fueled my ability to love fiercely. I’ve been broken repeatedly but I put myself back together each time, stronger than before. It’s because of these experiences, not despite these experiences, that I am here.
I used to carry my past in designer luggage, hoping that the beauty would be enough to dull the ugliness inside. Now I wear my past like badges of honor and I show my scars unreservedly. I still have a long way to go in my search for inner peace but for the time being, the war inside me has subsided and I am content.